As my classmates have described, the past few days have been a whirlwind tour of Chennai. Between the sightseeing, company visits and overcoming jet lag, we have been extremely busy, yet I get the sense that we have barely scratched the surface. One thing that we have had a chance to enjoy in abundance is the delicious South Indian cuisine. At every meal, our hosts are extremely gracious and there are new sumptuous dishes to sample- a real food lover’s paradise! Each day starts with an extravagant buffet at our hotel. Of course, since they cater to business travelers, you can find all of your western favorites like eggs and bacon, pancakes. But they also serve a host of Indian delicacies from dosas to stuffed pratha, paruppu vada, potato bajji, lemon rice and curry with mint chutney, all of which are a colorful balance of flavors and spiciness.
At every restaurant we’ve been too, the thing I notice the most is the freshness of those flavors. Being this much closer to the source for the spices brings nuance and power to even the most mundane dishes found in any Indian restaurant in America, like chicken tikka masala and palak paneer. My personal favorite thing I’ve had so far is the vegetarian tali from lunch the on the first day of the learning expedition. A tali is a common offering that comes with a number of different dishes in small bowls that line the edge of your plate and can focus on cuisine from any region of India. You get a generous helping of rice in the middle of your plate to complement the various curries, pickled vegetables and chutneys.
While we have spent a lot of time eating, we have also had a chance to gain some insight into other aspects of Indian culture. Yesterday we visited Kalakshetra, a school for traditional dance and music. Kalakshetra literally translates to a holy place of arts and was founded to revive the cultural traditions that were slowly fading under the British rule. Unfortunately, while we arrived too late to catch the dance rehearsal for the school’s upcoming performance, we were given a tour of the grounds and explanation of their education philosophy and were able to peek into some of the classroom cottages as students finished up their morning dance, drumming and singing lessons. We were asked not to take any photos on the peaceful, serene grounds, which were a strong contrast to the crowded, noisy, bustling streets of Chennai. While we stood under a beautiful old banyan tree, one of the masters explained Kalakshetra’s holistic teaching philosophy of providing students with instruction in every facet of their art. Dancers don’t just take dance class, but are taught music and singing to understand the harmony of their performance and language classes to understand the words of the songs they will dance to. All students also participate in daily yoga, chanting and meditation sessions to provide them with the strong mind and strong body they need to be at the top of their craft. The students range in age from 18 to 30 and many live on the campus while at the prestigious school.